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What Kind of Person Runs for Public Office?

October 4, 2010

Tags Legal SystemU.S. HistoryOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory

[Talk given at the Mises Circle in Colorado Springs, September 18, 2010]


"Those wishing to get elected and stay elected must be prepared to break every moral rule they have ever known."

H.L. Mencken described politicians as "men who, at some time or other, have compromised with their honour, either by swallowing their convictions or by whooping for what they believe to be untrue."

"Vanity remains to him," Mencken wrote, "but not pride."

The Sage of Baltimore had it correct that to be elected and stay elected in American politics to any full-time position requires the suspension of any ethics or good sense a person may possess. Even those who begin political careers with the best intentions and have measurable abilities that would make them successful in any field soon realize that the skills required to succeed in politics are not those required outside politics.

Lew Rockwell explains that, while competition in the marketplace improves quality, competition in politics does just the opposite:

The only improvements take place in the process of doing bad things: lying, cheating, manipulating, stealing, and killing. The price of political services is constantly increasing, whether in tax dollars paid or in the bribes owed for protection (also known as campaign contributions). There is no obsolescence, planned or otherwise.

F.A. Hayek famously argued in The Road to Serfdom, that in politics, the worst get on top, and outlined three reasons this is so. First, Hayek makes the point that people of higher intelligence have different tastes and views. So, as Hayek writes, "we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail," to have uniformity of opinion.

Second, those on top must "gain the support of the docile and gullible," who are ready to accept whatever values and ideology is drummed into them. Totalitarians depend upon those who are guided by their passions and emotions rather than by critical thinking.

Finally, leaders don't promote a positive agenda, but a negative one of hating an enemy and envy of the wealthy. To appeal to the masses, leaders preach an "us" against "them" program.

"Advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things," Hayek explains. "The principle that the end justifies the means, which in individualist ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals, in collectivist ethics becomes necessarily the supreme rule."

Those wishing to get elected and stay elected must be prepared to break every moral rule they have ever known if the ends justify it. Economist Frank Knight notes that those in authority, "would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation."

But even as the pathological gain these high positions in government, they freely use the word freedom to describe their program. "Collective freedom" is promised, which does not mean freedom for individual members of society, but instead is "unlimited freedom of the [government] planner to do with society that which he pleases."

And there is no accountability: the higher the office, the more criminal wrongdoing a person can get away with.

Thus, it becomes "a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union," wrote Mencken. Democracy makes it possible for the demagogue to inflame the childish imagination of the masses, "by virtue of his talent for nonsense." The king can do the same thing in a monarchy, but only by virtue of his birth.

In stark contrast, in the natural order, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in his monumental work, Democracy: The God that Failed, it is "private property, production, and voluntary exchange that are the ultimate sources of human civilization." This natural order, Hoppe notes, must be maintained by a natural elite which would come by these positions of "natural authority," not by election as in the case of democracy, or birth as in the case of monarchy, but by their "superior achievements, of wealth, wisdom, bravery or a combination thereof." This is just the opposite of what Mencken and Rockwell describe as a characteristic of democracy.

Hoppe writes in "Natural Elites, Intellectuals, and the State" that a few individuals in every society rise to elite status by their talent:

Due to superior achievements of wealth, wisdom, and bravery, these individuals come to possess natural authority, and their opinions and judgments enjoy wide-spread respect. Moreover, because of selective mating, marriage, and the laws of civil and genetic inheritance, positions of natural authority are likely to be passed on within a few noble families. It is to the heads of these families with long-established records of superior achievement, farsightedness, and exemplary personal conduct that men turn to with their conflicts and complaints against each other. These leaders of the natural elite act as judges and peacemakers, often free of charge out of a sense of duty expected of a person of authority or out of concern for civil justice as a privately produced "public good."

On the other hand, democracy affords the opportunity for anyone to pursue politics as a career. There is no need for the masses to recognize a person as "wise" or "successful," as Hoppe's natural order would require. Nor does one have to be born into the ruling family, as in the case of monarchy. As the great American comedian Bob Hope, who was actually born in England, once quipped, "I left England at the age of four when I found out I couldn't be king." Maybe because he knows he can never have Prince Charles's job, Sir Richard Branson — knighted for "services to entrepreneurship" — sticks to business and reportedly owns 360 companies.

But, as Hoppe explains, democracies have expanded, and since World War I have been viewed as the only legitimate form of government. In turn, more people who have been successful at other pursuits are running for political office or becoming politically active. For instance, more and more billionaires are entering the political arena. While the wealthy tycoons of a previous generation were private and tended to covet seclusion, today's captains of industry such as Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, and Jon Corzine are running for office. And while Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and George Soros haven't sought public office personally, they spend millions of dollars on political contributions and are visible in trying to sway the public debate on political issues, when their time would obviously be more productively spent (both for them and everyone else) on other, wealth-creating endeavors. Also, it should be noted, a quarter of all House members and a third of all members of the Senate are millionaires.

There may be politicians who pursue elected office for the money, but many elected officials are already wealthy by most people's standards. What makes the wealthy and otherwise successful want to hold office? Is it, as Charles Derber describes in The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, that politicians since "Caesar and Napoleon have been driven by overweening egos and an insatiable hunger for public adulation"?

The work of psychologist Abraham Maslow may provide an understanding as to why even successful entrepreneurs would seek public office. Maslow is famous for his "hierarchy of needs" theory, which is taught in most management classes in American universities. The theory is generally presented visually as a pyramid, with the lowest or most basic human need — physiological need — shown as a layer along the base of the pyramid.

Maslow's view was that the basic human needs — thirst, hunger, breathing — must be satisfied before humans can accomplish or worry about anything else. The next tranche within the pyramid, shown on top of the physiological need, is the safety need. After satisfying thirst and hunger, humans are concerned about their continued survival. If a man is constantly worried about being eaten by a tiger, he doesn't concern himself with much else.

The next layer presented within Maslow's pyramid is the belonging need, which lies just above safety need. After the satisfaction of the two lower needs — physiological and safety — a person seeks love, friendships, companionship, and community. Once these needs are satisfied, according to Maslow, humans seek the esteem need. These first four needs were considered deficit needs. If a person is lacking, there is a motivation to fill that need. Once the particular need is filled, the motivation abates. This makes these needs different than the need at the top of Maslow's pyramid, the need for self-actualization. The need for self-actualization is never satisfied, and Maslow referred to it as a being need, or the need to be all you can be.

"While the electorate recognizes that they are electing at best incompetents and at worst crooks, the constant, naïve, prodemocracy mantra is that 'we just need to elect the right people'."

Thus, humans continually strive to satisfy their needs, and as the more basic needs are satisfied, humans move up the pyramid, if you will, to satisfy higher-level needs. Of course, different humans achieve different levels, and it was Maslow's view that only 2 percent of humans become self-actualizing. Maslow studied some famous people along with a dozen not-so-famous folks and developed a list of personality traits that were consistent with people he judged to be self-actualizing. Besides being creative and inventive, self-actualizers have strong ethics, a self-deprecating sense of humor, humility and respect for others, resistance to enculturation, enjoyment of autonomy and solitude instead of shallow relationships with many people. They believe the ends don't necessarily justify the means and that the means can be ends in themselves.

One readily sees that Maslow's self-actualizers have nothing in common with politicians in a democracy, but closely fit the profile that Hoppe describes of the natural elite that would lead a natural order. But a step down from the top of the hierarchy-of-needs pyramid is the need for esteem. Maslow described two types of esteem needs according to Maslow expert Dr. C. George Boeree, a lower esteem need and a higher one. And while the higher form of esteem calls for healthy attributes such as freedom, independence, confidence, and achievement, the lower form "is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance."

"The negative version of these needs is low self-esteem and inferiority complexes," Dr. Boeree writes. "Maslow felt that Adler was really onto something when he proposed that these were at the roots of many, if not most, of our psychological problems."

Now we see these qualities displayed by virtually all politicians in democracy: the constant need for status and recognition. The ends — compensating for an inferiority complex — justify whatever Machiavellian means.

Because democracy is open to any and all who can get themselves elected, either through connections, personality, or personal wealth, it is a social system where leadership positions become a hotbed for sociopaths. Maslow's self-actualizing man won't have an interest in politics. But those stuck on the need for esteem are drawn to it like flies to cow pies.

Even religious philosophers recognize the shortcoming of those in power.

Saint Augustine wrote about the theory of just war and held a different worldview from his predecessors, lacking the usual optimism that man strives to comprehend the ultimate verities, live in an orderly fashion, and find his way to God.

Augustine was pessimistic of human nature, believing men weren't inclined toward righteousness, but instead had a tendency towards doing evil "as the result of Adam's fall, pride, vanity, and libido domini — the lust for domination — entice men towards waging wars and committing all manner of violence," explains John Mark Mattox in Saint Augustine and the Theory of the Just War.

Judge Andrew Napolitano made the point during a speech at Mises University that libido domini is the thing in human nature that attracts people into government, in order that they may dominate their fellow man — that the same men who founded the United States government wrote laws as repugnant as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Hoppe recognized that natural elites have responsibilities that extend far beyond themselves and their families.

The more successful they are as businessmen and professionals, and the more others recognize them as successful, the more important it is that they set an example: that they strive to live up to the highest standards of ethical conduct. This means accepting as their duty, indeed as their noble duty, to support openly, proudly, and as generously as they possibly can the values that they have recognized as right and true.

They receive in return intellectual inspiration, nourishment, and strength, as well as the knowledge that their name will live forever as outstanding individuals who rose above the masses and made a lasting contribution to mankind.

On the other hand, in democracy politicians demand attention, seeking acclaim for anything they do, continually taking credit for policies they say have made our lives better when in fact these interventions make our lives worse. There is no need to list the names of politicians who have committed crimes or ethics violations — it would take all day. The point is made.

With leadership in such dysfunctional hands, it is no wonder. "In comparison to the nineteenth century, the cognitive prowess of the political and intellectual elites and the quality of public education have declined," Hoppe writes in Democracy. "And the rates of crime, structural unemployment, welfare dependency, parasitism, negligence, recklessness, incivility, psychopathy, and hedonism have increased."

So while the electorate recognizes that they are electing at best incompetents and at worst crooks, the constant, naïve, prodemocracy mantra is that "we just need to elect the right people." But, the "right people" aren't (and won't be) running for office. Instead, we will continue to have "the average American legislator [who] is not only an ass," as Mencken wrote, "but also an oblique, sinister, depraved and knavish fellow."

So do we just throw up our hands? Is it hopeless? No, it can safely be predicted that the democratic welfare state will collapse, according to Hoppe, and what is necessary besides a crisis is ideas — correct ideas — and men capable of understanding and implementing these ideas once the opportunity arises.

So the natural elites have an obligation to make sure the truth is spread. Mises and Rothbard were only able to make themselves heard through the support of others. Lawrence Fertig and others supported Mises. Mises Institute donors supported Rothbard's work.

As Hoppe writes, "Once upon a time, in the pre-democratic age, when the spirit of egalitarianism had not yet destroyed most men of independent wealth and independent minds and judgments, this task of supporting unpopular intellectuals was taken on by individuals." Hoppe explains that this is nearly impossible in this day and age.

He points out that a person's first obligation is to make as much money as he can, "because the more money he makes, the more beneficial he has been to his fellow man." But the natural elites extend beyond that. It is for them to support the truth.

The outstanding individuals of the Pikes Peak Economics Club are the natural elites that made today's program possible. They have accepted their duty to fight evil, even though they may never see the benefit. Thank you Pikes Peak Economics Club for keeping alive the truths of private property, free markets, and personal responsibility.

Not only are we in your debt, but future generations will be in your debt as well.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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